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Issue 26 - Town and country

Scotland Magazine Issue 26
April 2006


This article is 12 years old and some information provided may be time sensitive. Please check all details of events, tours, opening times and other information before travelling or making arrangements.

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Town and country

In a new series of cycle rides for Scotland Magazine Paul Kirkwood will go mountain biking in the Borders, pedal around lochs in Perthshire and cycle to the smithy where the bicycle was born. He starts in the capital

You don’t need me to tell you about the appeal of the centre of Edinburgh. But what about the suburbs? Running through them to the southwest and out into the countryside is a cycle route along a canal, river and railway trackbed which provides an ideal introduction to another side of the city, as I found out.

A few turns after setting off from Waverley station and with some careful sign-following I reached the start of the Union Canal.

Here the arch of Leamington lift bridge – officially re-opened after restoration last year – provides a sort of starting gate for the long, trafficfree majority of the route.

A short way further is another fine piece of civil engineering: the aqueduct over the Water of Leith.

Signs instructed me to dismount but I didn’t need much persuading once I’d seen the narrow, one-metre width of the walkway beside the water. I didn’t know how deep the canal was at this point and didn’t want to find out.

Moorhens and magpies were my only company excluding the pair of miners carved from a tree trunk and half-hidden in the bushes beside the path. Their alert expressions and uprightness made the figures all the more startling.

I swapped one former highway for another to continue my journey along a disused railway line. It’s a real Thomas the Tank Engine affair complete with a curving, horse-shoe shaped tunnel through a hillside which is long enough to need to be lit by a line of roof lights.

A return to the waterside wasn’t far away – in the form of the Water of Leith. The river is a real showoff compared to its languid, unnatural neighbour, the water racing playfully over the rocks, round bends and under bridges.

The railway path terminates at Balerno where today the High School occupies the site of the village’s station.

Built in 1874 to service mills in the village and along the Water of Leith, the railway line closed in 1967.

I bought my sandwiches from the supermarket and ate them among the roses and yew trees of the walled Malleny Garden.

Refreshed and rested, I headed upwards and away from Balerno on the only climb of the day.

The watery theme of the ride continued in the form of four reservoirs at the foot of the Pentland Hills.

Threipmuir is open and windswept while Harlaw is lined with Scots pines and has a wildlife garden which is a handy resting point especially if you’re with children.

After Clubbiedean Reservoir – and tucked into what the Scots call a cleugh (ravine) – Torduff is relatively dramatic with its rocky sides plunging directly into the water. Bonaly Tower, sticking up above the trees, gives another hint of the Highlands. There are great views as well – to Arthur’s Seat and the new air traffic control tower at Edinburgh airport.

Crossing over the bypass brought me back to reality – and back to the city. I completed my return by repeating part of the disused railway line and along a fresh stretch of the Water of Leith. The rugby players training in the park didn’t need to look far for inspiration: Murrayfield loomed above them. Soon I was cycling around the back of the stadium.

As the river becomes more central so it becomes more sinuous. Just when I thought there were no more signs for the Water of Leith Walkway I spotted another one and kept going as far as Dean Village.

If I’m ever rich enough and in Edinburgh I’ll live here. Lovely little mews houses line the now wooded river which rushes along the bottom of a steep valley. As I reluctantly left the Walkway, only the bricks forming the road surface reminded me where I was.

A couple of turns later I spotted the Scott Monument at the end of a street, heralding journey’s end.

It seemed strange to have emerged so suddenly back in the city centre throng. I felt like I’d popped up from a secret tunnel. It was stranger still to think that only a couple of hours previously I’d been surveying snow-topped hills with not a soul to be seen. I pushed my bike carefully between the shoppers on Princes Street feeling conspicuous with my muddy trousers and flushed cheeks.


Start: Edinburgh Waverley Station.
Distance: 24 miles.

Map:OS Landranger Sheet 66: Edinburgh. The Edinburgh Cycle Map is handy for the urban parts of the route. Available from £4.95 plus P&P.

Cycle hire: Biketrax +44 (0)131 228 6333

Refreshments: Two pubs and two restaurants in Balerno.

Directions: Leave station via ramped access road. Turn right on North Bridge, first right down Market St and sharp left up Bank St. Pick up the first sign for National Cycle Route 75 by pelican crossing after war memorial. Follow signs all the way to Balerno. From Balerno High School the return route to the city is described at: mported_routes/pentland_hills_res

Leave website route, however, at the Millennium Acres junction of cycle paths (passed earlier) beside the canal in Slateford. Take track under railway then left along passage and right down Redhall Drive. Right at end down Green Rd. Left briefly on Lanark Rd then left to join Water of Leith Walkway (open to cycles) via visitors’ centre.

Keep following brown Walkway signs until it appears to end beside green iron footbridge. Cross bridge, ascend Hawthornbank Lane and at end left up Bells Brae. Right down Dean Bridge, left down Randolph Crescent, right down Ainslie Place, right down Glenfinlas St, left around Charlotte Sq, left down length of George St, left round St Andrew Sq, right down Andrew St to station.